Sustainable sewing: transforming a garment with embroidery

When faced with the reality of packing for a big move, Storyteller Carolyn Osorio took the opportunity to consider her relationship with her clothing, and taking steps towards a more sustainable wardrobe.  By using embroidery, Carolyn was able to create a new connection with a store-bought jean jacket, creating a piece of evolving, wearable art that will never again be forgotten in the back of the closet.  

There’s something about moving that forces you to reflect on not only the closing chapter of the place you’re leaving but also on all of the other iterations of past chapters that might be lingering in your house.  This is especially true of my closet.  Sentimental outfits with special memories, old party dresses and gowns, and, increasingly as I get older, a collection of things that simply don’t fit anymore and probably never will fit again.  Assessing these items, some I forgot I even owned, made me reevaluate them and my relationship to them before deciding how or if I even should pack them for my next chapter.

While some throw their clothes away, another common answer to the question “What can I do with these extra clothes I don’t wear?” is to donate them.  While this is a noble idea (and one you should absolutely consider before simply throwing your clothes away), and many clothes do experience a second or even third life, I recently learned that a vast majority of donated clothing actually ends up in landfills.  Used clothing with any kind of damage (torn, stained, etc.) is especially prone to a landfill ending and this further contributes to environmental pollution (not to mention how much water it took to make the garment in the first place).

I started thinking about the bags of donation clothes I had piled in the corner of my room in a very different light after this.  As a maker and sewer, I like to think I take more time and consideration into account when buying ready-to-wear clothing, but I’m not immune to the joy (and serotonin burst) of a shopping trip.  This brings me to this Sustainability project.  I found not one, not two, but four different denim jackets in my closet when packing to move.  The absurdity of this number made me question my sanity but it also presented me with a dilemma.

None of these jackets were damaged beyond repair, out of style, or didn’t fit anymore.  My only motivation to donate them would simply be that I don’t wear all of them.  However, denim is one of the most water-intensive textiles on our planet so the potential for one (or three) of these jackets to end up in a landfill left me feeling more wasteful than I could handle.  At this point, my question changed from “What can I do with these extra clothes I don’t wear?” to “What can I do TO these extra clothes I don’t wear?”  This shift in mindset got me thinking about different ways I could change or transform one of my forgotten jackets instead of further contributing to textile waste.

Should I cut one of the jackets up and use the denim for smaller projects?  Should I include a quilted section?  Should I turn it into a vest?  A tote?  I played with a lot of different ideas for how I could rework one of these jackets into something brand new.  However, my second dilemma presented itself.  As I was struggling to think of a sewing process that would feel right for this project I remembered, that’s right - I’m in the middle of moving!  My machine, my shears, my pins, and everything else I hold dear in my sewing room was packed into a crate to travel across the ocean and it would be months before I had access to them again.  If I wanted to transform this jacket I would need a much tinier art.

Enter embroidery

I only recently started exploring embroidery a few months ago and have both enjoyed and been fascinated by the process so far.  That being said, as a relative newcomer to the craft I had kept my previous projects on the smaller side.  A jacket would be a decidedly more intensive process but, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how doable embroidery would be in my current situation (in terms of necessary supplies and space required).  Staying with family while I wait to move again has left me with minimal space and next to no sewing supplies to speak of, so being able to simply sit in a chair with a needle and thread to achieve this project is what ultimately helped me decide it was the perfect solution to transform my jacket while in the middle of an international move.

Embroidery would not only allow me to turn one of my denim jackets into something that would distinguish it from the other forgotten jackets in my closet but would also make it something special during a time of absolute chaos.  Sewing has always been a way for me to quiet my mind, conquer anxiety, and keep my hands busy so the loss of my ability to do it during this time has been difficult.  Being able to focus on creating something special was a very needed project for me during all of this.  Best of all, by creating an entirely unique garment out of an existing jacket, I could make something that would never end up in a landfill and something I’d never forget in the back of my closet ever again.

In keeping with the Sustainable theme, and my attempts to help our planet in my own small way, I decided to create a garden of native plants, flowers, and pollinators through T&T’s many beautiful embroidery patterns.  Since I am still relatively new to embroidery, the process was slow at the beginning but gradually got better as I continued.  I included all three of T &T’s recently released New Zealand Flowers, as well as their Bumble Bee + Lavender, and Wildflower embroidery patterns.

Final thoughts...

While I’ve moved this jacket into all-new territory with the embroidery I created, I have also realized that I created something that could continue to change.  Now, as I look at what I’ve made, I absolutely love the idea of returning to this jacket to add more flowers and work as I get better at embroidery through months or even years.  I will admit that I was very dedicated to the idea of having this jacket “done” when I was first working on it, and, as a maker, oftentimes my need to have the accomplishment of something being finished can get in the way of my enjoying the process.  In that way, this project was an exercise in patience as well as sustainability, and while I’d normally proudly proclaim this jacket as done, now I feel it will never be done and that makes it even more special as a garden that continues to grow.

You can see more of Carolyn's work here